x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Pakistan on long road to olive farming

Amid violence, tribesmen flock to Islamabad project office to take lessons on farming the oil-producing plants.

Muhammed Imran has been working for 50 years at the Agriculture Research Institute in Tarnab, Pakistan.
Muhammed Imran has been working for 50 years at the Agriculture Research Institute in Tarnab, Pakistan.

ISLAMABAD // In the dry hills of Pakistan's violence-racked frontier with Afghanistan, an olive branch is being extended from Italy to tribesmen under fire from both US drones and Taliban fighters. Rome is in the early throes of an ambitious project to convert Pakistan's barren wild olive groves into fruit-bearers, establish new olive plantations and give birth to a new industry in olive oil production. The troubled tribal hinterland is the poorest in Pakistan. It has little home-grown industry other than marble, fruit, pine nuts and crude weapons. Yet its climatic conditions and monsoon-free geography make it prime country for olive cultivation and a potential new edible oil industry. With 82 per cent illiteracy, high unemployment and repeated US missile attacks leaving its youth vulnerable to recruitment by avenging militants, the parched region is in dire need of new income sources. "Kick-starting the economy somehow is a must if you want to improve the situation anywhere and reduce strange temptations," said Raffaele del Cima, project officer for the Italian government's olive oil promotion scheme. "These are difficult areas. If we can initiate a process to generate job opportunities and improve conditions, then other benefits like education will come soon." Few embassies can claim to have an olive cultivation cell - other than Italy's mission in Islamabad. Its "promotion of production and marketing of olive oil in Pakistan" scheme is sponsored by the Italian foreign ministry's Istituto Agronomico per Oltremare (Institute of Agronomy for Overseas). After the country's agriculture ministry and Pakistan Oilseed Development Board sought Rome's help in expanding its edible oil industry to reduce its heavy import bill, Mr del Cima travelled to Pakistan in 2006 to launch a suitability assessment. Pakistan is covered in forests of wild olives, namely the olea feruginea and olea cuspidata species, typical to the northern Himalayan belt through India, Nepal and China. Up to 50 million wild olive trees grow here, but they bear no more than a seed-sized fruit and produce no oil. "The previous assumption was that where wild olives grow, others can grow and produce oil. Wrong. If we want good, sustainable early production, we must guarantee other elements, for example rainfall, slope and altitude for the chilling requirement," Mr del Cima said. While much of monsoon-prone Pakistan is unsuitable because of spring and late summer rains, the assessment's findings were nevertheless impressive: 880,000 hectares without irrigation are ripe for cultivation, mainly in the western borderlands of Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). Italy, the world's prime producer of olive oil, has 1.2 million hectares under cultivation. Tribesmen from Waziristan and nearby districts better known internationally as al Qa'eda territory have been streaming into the project office in Islamabad to soak up the lessons on farming the oil-producing species. "They adore these trees because they are in their book. The Quran mentions that olive oil can cure dozens of diseases," Mr del Cima said. "So for them it's huge, growing these trees and fruit and producing their oil. It's an entry point of incredible importance." Sixty per cent of the hotbed Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is suitable for olive cultivation. Further south in Baluchistan, suffering from an insurgency over resource exploitation and inequitable wealth distribution, 22 per cent of land is suitable. A map produced by the scheme charts the collision of prime olive country with militant trouble spot. Streaks of red colour FATA districts, such as Bajaur, where Pakistan's army is mired in a military offensive against Taliban fighters; and North and South Waziristan, which are regular targets of deadly missile attacks by pilotless US drones from Afghanistan. The scheme works by demonstrating cultivation and harvest techniques on trial farms, and providing training in species selection, nursery management, orchard husbandry, oil analysis and the operation of oil extraction units. An oil extracting plant has been established just outside Peshawar in NWFP and is open to any olive producer. Ten experimental one-hectare farms are operating under the scheme in Baluchistan and NWFP. Already 1,700 two-year-old olive trees representing 18 species have been imported under the scheme. The trees are being planted at a ratio of 270 per hectare, with a projected annual production of four tonnes of olives per hectare at full growth. Omens of abundance lie in Malakand district in NWFP where locals in 2001 began grafting on to wild trees the branches of several Mediterranean fruit-bearing species: picoline, arbequina, barnea, cortina and frantoi. "Those trees have been producing olives abundantly since 2004," Mr del Cima said. Early signs of commercial viability are the purchase by a Karachi-based company of olives from Malakand at 60 rupees to 80 rupees a kilogram. Unrest, however, prevented any transport of Malakand olives this year. "It's difficult to get buyers there, and very difficult to hire tractors to transport olives to our processing unit. It's all made more difficult by the strife, militants and curfews." Nevertheless, confidence is high in creating Pakistani extra-virgin olive oil. If 25 million trees can be planted in the next 15 to 20 years, 72,000 tonnes of oil could be produced annually. "The will and opportunity is very strong. The potential is very big. The key lies in acceptance by growers. The area is there, the environment is there. We just have to see how different species adapt." The Pakistan Oilseed Development Board began a 16-hectare trial farm of 18,000 trees in Mardan, another NWFP district, before the Italians arrived. Two tonnes of olives from Mardan were put through the extraction plant last month, resulting in the first home-grown Pakistani olive oil. It is now being analysed. A bottle of cloudy amber-green oil sits in Mr del Cima's office. "Not bad," he declared, sniffing the bottle before tasting. "It's typical of warm areas. Sweetish, not very pungent or bitter. The nose and colour are fresh. The fennel's, which give products shelf-life, are poor. This product has a shelf-life of two to three months." Mr del Cima's focus now is to draft a map of charting oil properties and characteristics in each growing district. "I like to see olives on trees, but in the end I like to see what's in the bottle." bcurran@thenational.ae